Killer Elite and the Ethics of “Based on a True Story”
The movie Killer Elite was released with “based on a true story” as part of its marketing campaign, and gives that clear message in the opening credits of the film. Many of the characters have the names of real people, including one of the characters being Ranulph Fiennes (yes, he's related to Ralph Fiennes), the author of the book The Feather Men, which the film was based on.
The idea was to sell more books and at the time, the person who was going to put new books in the bookshop was told to put it in the “fiction” side of the shop or the “non-fiction” side of the shop, and at the time people only read one or the other, so if you put it on both sides of the shop you got both sets of book buyers.
The book was originally published including real photographs of the characters in the books, and presented as if its contents could be based on a true story. Today, Fiennes says the book is a work of fiction, but the truth is muddied by the various ways the book has been marketed since its original publication in 1991. In my opinion, some incarnations of the book crossed the line in promoting the “non-fiction” elements of the story, rather than taking on the more responsible genre of “faction.”
The film, on the other hand, clearly departs significantly from the plot of the book. It goes so far as to actually drastically change the storyline of Ranulph Fiennes' character, who is the one person whose participation can be easily verified. Given this huge departure from the book, a source of already dubious veracity, it is clear that the filmmakers have no reasonable belief that they are actually creating a work “based on a true story.”
The movie presents real deaths, war actions, and crimes performed by characters with real-world living counterparts, and it presents them under the guise of being “based on a true story.” This is despite the following statement from Fiennes:
The publishers and literary agents have written to them and said it was quite clear that they shouldn’t have done that, and that they should change it to words like “inspired by” instead of “based on.” Maybe they’ll change it, but I don’t know.
Personally, I find the presentation of this film as being “based on a true story” to be reprehensible.
Here's the weird thing… I have no problem with a work of fiction pretending to be real. I'm fine with it in the case of Fargo and I'm fine with it in the case of the many “found footage” horror films or mockumentaries. These are cases of presenting predominantly fictional characters and situation as being real. They are wholly fictional works being presented as “true” as part of their fiction.
However, it's totally irresponsible to do this once your characters are real people, especially real people who are still alive. I think it's deeply unethical, and in many cases could considered to be illegal. I assume that the people who made the film feel they are adequately protected legally in their claim that the film is “based on a true story” but that doesn't relieve them of their ethical obligation of not presenting real people as war criminals and then claiming they're telling a “true story.”
There are actually plenty of suitable alternatives to “based on a true story” that cover situations like this. Some obvious alternatives would be “inspired by a true story” or “inspired by true events” which both weaken the connection to reality. An even better alternative would have been just changing the names of the characters, so they aren't directly claiming that real people committed unsubstantiated murders and war crimes. This should have been an obvious choice once they changed the story from what was presented in the original book.
Of course, the most responsible choice would have been to just present the film as a work of fiction, but then you don't get the “true story” marketing and publicity hook.
The nature of film is that it has a power of becoming real to the viewer. We experience what the characters are going through as if we are going through those same situations. We feel their emotions and think as if we are in their shoes. There is a level of trust implicit in this; that we, the audience, are willing to let you, the filmmaker, control our experience for the next two hours because we trust you will treat that honor with the responsibility it deserves. We want to believe the things we are watching are real, and when you tell us that yes, we did actually watch something real, we take that information with us when we leave the theater.
At the very least, we hope that if you are going to mess with the implicit contract between audience and filmmaker you are going to do it for a compelling artistic reason. Not just as a way to market your movie, with the side-effect of causing members of the audience to believe damaging lies about real people and real organizations long after leaving the theater.
What I'll take away: “based on a true story” can provide an interesting marketing hook for a film and can help draw an audience into a film, but should be used responsibly.
[A version of this post was originally published on January 15, 2012 on my old blog at keithcalder.com.]